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People who are referred to as “historic figures” are often political or military leaders, even though they are not the only ones who make history. For historians, there is a risk that, by looking only at the actions of kings or presidents, they will overlook the influence of people who managed to launch processes of truly historic importance, even without having any formal political power. One such individual is Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the famous 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
By drawing the nation’s attention to the conditions under which slaves were living, Stowe inspired free states to oppose slavery more fiercely and provoked much indignation in the South. An abolitionist and a woman of strong humanistic beliefs, Stowe made a large contribution to the abolition movement and to the culture of a nation that eventually condemned slavery. For her outstanding achievement in raising awareness and convincing Americans of the inhumanity of slavery, Stowe deserves to be depicted on the U.S. twenty-dollar bill.
Lighting the movement to abolish slavery
First of all, Harriet Beecher Stowe is not only an influential person but also someone who represents the entire abolition movement, as she has become one of the most powerful symbols of the struggle against slavery. The abolition movement brought different people together based on their humanistic beliefs; it was not only a political movement (i.e., a movement to introduce a certain amendment to the U.S. Constitution or to promote certain political interests of northern Republicans) but also a movement guided by ethical principles.
To understand the role of Stowe, it is necessary to examine the context in which she acted. Indeed, even though the existence of the institution of slavery was a major division between the North and the South, it was not the case that the entire North believed slavery to be inhumane, while the South was filled with sadistic slavers who liked to treat their slaves with cruelty. Many people in the North supported slavery, and even among those who did not, some recognized the right of the southern states to preserve the institution.
Even newly elected President Abraham Lincoln, though not acknowledged as president by the southern states, called upon them in his first inaugural address to not let a civil war happen, promising that he had “no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.”1 At the same time, in the South, many people were discussing the advantages of slavery, and several books were published arguing that slavery was the most effective economic organization of labor, bringing maximal benefits to the slaver, his slaves, and the overall economy of the country.
It can also be said that in some places, slaves were treated rather well, and they were able to live decent lives, as their masters provided good conditions for them. This fact is given to show that the American nation, though split into two major factions, was still in the process of discussing slavery. Although it is hard to imagine today, apart from the resolute opponents of slavery and its passionate supporters, there was a significant gray zone, and this is the context in which Stowe was acting.
In her work, Stowe drew attention to unspoken issues. Amid the ongoing social debate about the economic effects of slavery as a form of labor organization, she was one of the people who started a discussion about the actual conditions in which many slaves were forced to live. From a historical perspective, it is important to understand that not all people in the United States in the Antebellum Era realized how cruelly many slave owners treated their slaves.
Stowe emphasized the point that even though some slaves might be living in good conditions, the very existence of an institution in which people were legally regarded as property (i.e., their masters could purchase and sell them) and in which their lives and fates fully depended on the will of their masters created a situation where some slaves could be treated inhumanely, and nothing could be done about it—as long as the institution of slavery existed.
From this perspective, the figure of Harriet Beecher Stowe has grown to be more than that of an individual author; she has become a representation of the shift in the public discourse about slavery. Instead of talking about the economic aspects of slavery, she chose to discuss the unacceptability of it from a humanistic perspective, and she presented evidence to the public to show that slavery, first of all, was something that allowed terrible cruelty and violence to exist.2
What should also be examined from this perspective is the form that Stowe chose to deliver her message to the public. On the one hand, she wanted to present actual documented stories, but along with publishing these factual materials, she also decided to write a fictional work, ultimately describing it as “a mosaic of facts.”3 Her decision was justified by the fact that a fictionalized story could have a greater effect on the reader than a newspaper article because it was more emotionally appealing. By choosing the language of literature to address social issues and managing to reach many people, raise awareness, and provoke a social response, Stowe once again demonstrated that a talented writer can be more powerful and more influential for the course of history than a politician.
However, apart from being an author, Stowe also acted as a political activist, spreading the knowledge that she had gained from examining the lives of slaves in the South. She spent much time seeking out evidence of cruel treatment toward slaves in the southern states, and she eventually chose to translate those stories into fiction because she thought that storytelling, as opposed to newspaper stories or public speeches, would be a more powerful tool for reaching and convincing audiences.
Nonetheless, she stressed that the stories she was telling were true and “should be examined without bitterness,—in that serious and earnest spirit which is appropriate for the examination of so very serious a subject.”4 Moreover, Stowe made a significant contribution to the political liberation of women in the United States, as she was a woman who entered the intellectual arena and declared that women had things to say, too.
With the positions that women held in American society at the time, they had very few rights. Even though one of the first examples in the history of the Western world of massive organized paid labor of women was occurring at that time in the textile factories of New England, women still had little choice, as their lives were essentially a journey from being deprived of the opportunity to make independent decisions in their parents’ households to being deprived of those same opportunities in their husbands’ houses.
As more and more women became spokespeople and activists, they brought new agendas to the social discussion, preparing society for a struggle for gender equality. In this context, some researchers have argued that Stowe “transformed the anti-market implications of conventional women’s culture into a radical call for social and moral transformation.”5 Her historical contribution, therefore, should not be regarded as only the promotion of abolition but also, on a larger scale, as the promotion of the overall liberalization of American society.
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Finally, when discussing Harriet Beecher Stowe’s impact, it should be said that, for future generations, she created impressive and appealing works that can be used in any era to teach young people about humanistic values. While there are books written around the time when Stowe lived that is hard for a modern person to read because they seem so savage and hypocritical—like the books of slavery proponents, for example—Stowe’s most famous novel is still read today as a declaration of ethical values that have become universally acknowledged.
Stowe created an emotional appeal “as a means to educate children—America’s future—to political and moral consciousness.”6 She can also be seen as a source of inspiration for young people because she was a woman, and women were widely deprived of social and political rights in American society at that time, and because she was a writer and a journalist who made a difference through her creative work.
Harriet Beecher Stowe should appear on the twenty-dollar bill because she has become a symbol of the struggle for freedom in the United States. Her example is particularly appealing because she was not an elected official or a representative of some strong political interest groups. She was a writer, and her main interest was to rid the American nation of the inhumane practice of treating human beings as property. Stowe managed to create moving works that were fictitious but had a more significant effect than any political speech or manifesto because they appealed to the emotions of people. She was a woman who made the abolition movement stronger and shaped the nationwide consensus that slavery was unacceptable.
De Rosa, Deborah C. Domestic Abolitionism and Juvenile Literature, 1830-1865. New York: SUNY Press, 2012.
Klein, Rachel N. “Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Domestication of Free Labor Ideology.” Legacy 18 (2001): 135–52.
Lincoln, Abraham. “First Inaugural Address.” In Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of the United States: From George Washington to Barack Obama. Washington: Bartleby, 2013. Web.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Presenting the Original Facts and Documents upon which the Story Is Founded. Mineola: Dover Publications, 2015.
- Abraham Lincoln, “First Inaugural Address,” in Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of the United States: From George Washington to Barack Obama (Washington: Bartleby, 2013). Web.
- Deborah C. De Rosa, Domestic Abolitionism and Juvenile Literature, 1830-1865 (New York: SUNY Press, 2012), 133.
- Harriet Beecher Stowe, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Presenting the Original Facts and Documents upon Which the Story Is Founded (Mineola: Dover Publications, 2015), 5.
- Stowe, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, iv.
- Rachel N. Klein, “Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Domestication of Free Labor Ideology,” Legacy 18 (2001): 135.
- De Rosa, Domestic Abolitionism and Juvenile Literature, 10.